[The latest edition of Haveil [Charles] Havalim is here!]
Thank Gd, we are blessed with four wonderful children with very different personalities, and we now manage to have all of them with us in shul Shabbos morning for davening, from the almost-10 year old down to the 3 year old. All of them come with my wife and me before davening , and all of them remain through the end.
Every once in a while, people ask me for “the secret” to their good behavior. If we have succeeded at all [and on many mornings I tend to doubt it...], the secret is mostly in my much-admired rebbetzin’s genes as well as influence.
Still, we have learned some lessons over the past six years of bringing kids to shul, lessons which also apply to other areas of raising kids. Here are several; please add your own.
Set realistic expectations
In terms of bringing kids to multiple davenings on the same Shabbos, in terms of bringing kids to shul early in the morning or late at night, and in terms of the level of davening participation we demand, it’s important that we figure out their shul-tolerance in advance.
Make sure the children know your expectations
This is huge; kids must know, in advance, what exactly they are expected to do.
This includes providing clear and timely notice before sections of davening in which you cannot speak to them; parents can’t stand up in the amidah or go for an aliyah without forewarning their children and setting them up with proper activities.
Instructions must also be repeated at appropriate intervals for younger children.
Avoid the wrong distractions, provide the right distractions
As far as avoiding the wrong distractions, this is the one benefit of my sitting far from others; there is no pressure for them to converse with peers or adults.
But we must also provide the right distractions, ways for the kids to spend their time in shul productively, when they are not davening. For some it’s picking out letters in the siddur with them; for others it’s storybooks or sefarim. But just like adults need positive distractions, so do kids.
This also goes for the shul's youth programs during davening. Know what the programs are, and know whether they are good for your kids, and in what doses.
Set the tone when you’re not in shul
Children often see davening as a “shul thing” rather than something they do, personally, and they don’t understand why it should have meaning for them. Davening should be a part of their daily lives in some way, both in learning about it and in practicing it, so that they understand the conversation with HaShem as a function of their normal, day-to-day existence.
Be a good role model
A no-brainer. If you talk, or if you space out, then the kids will do it, too.
(Although, once they reach their teens they may use this as a catalyst for rebellion, and start to daven more seriously just to spite you...)
Put yourself at their disposal
This may mean delaying your amidah until a problem is resolved, or staggering child-care with a neighbor. It certainly involves interrupting your davening, when at all possible, to converse appropriately with the children, explain the davening to them, and keep them involved.
Have a fall-back plan
Leaving shul, handing a child off to another parent, whatever, but there must always be a plan.
Understand what they are doing, and why
It’s important for parents to understand why their children daven, or do not daven. Do they understand what davening is about? Can they read well? If they are not davening, is it rebellion against you, boredom, distraction by their personal lives, spacing out… ?
Training kids to daven is chinuch, a critical parental responsibility, but getting agitated and losing your temper won’t help. If your child isn’t ready, getting upset at him won’t make him ready. Take each child at her own level, with his own style.
Oh, and be ready to throw any and all of these rules out the window for your particular child. It’s the age-old lesson of child-rearing: No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.